Halloween Horror Nights XXIX Full Review

You know it’s Halloween season when Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights opens! And this year, it opened earlier than ever. What a banner year it is! Opening weekend with my friends was an absolute blast. Over all, this was a solid year for the event that turns 30 next year. Although there lacks an official theme for HHN29, it is very clearly 80’s nostalgia, complete with the laser lights and electronica sounds that were such a quintessential part of the decade. The lineup of houses is outstanding; from fantastic original concepts to familiar and even historic licensed IPs, HHN29 has something for everyone. New for this year is the Halloween Marathon of Mayhem projection/water nighttime spectacular on the lagoon that has showings a few times a night. Don’t miss it! In addition to houses, the crowd favorite Twisted Tater is back; I remember all too well, last year, the iconic starchy snack was absent on opening weekend. Not this year! Although my friends and I had Express Passes, the general wait times were all mostly under an hour. That number will likely increase the closer we get to Halloween; but for right now, waits are reasonable.

If I was to sum up the experience of this year compared to years gone by, I would have to say that this year’s HHN is less scary than previous seasons. This sentiment appears to be shared by others as well. The trend to catering to younger (and by younger, I mean under 17) and their families began last year with the introduction of Stranger Things. Now, I don’t only go to HHN to be scared–that’s not really the point–yes, is that an added benefit? Sure! But when you watch horror movies on a regular basis and attend this most prestigious Halloween event each year, you’re naturally going to become desensitized to the scares. Therefore, it may become less scary over time, but I would have liked to have experienced more terrifying moments in some of the houses. While I am being negatively critical of the level of terror, I want to emphasize that this IS a solid year, and one that I’ve experienced three times this season and plan to attend more.

This year’s houses: Universal Monsters, Graveyard Games, Nightingales Blood Pit, House of a Thousand Corpses, Depths of Fear, Us, Yeti Terror of the Yukon, Ghostbusters, Stranger Things, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space

This year’s scare zones: Anarch-cade, Zombieland Double Tap, Rob Zombie Hellbilly Deluxe, Vikings Undead, Vanity Ball

Let’s start with my favorite house Universal Monsters! This was the house that I was most eager to experience even before the event began. And I am pleased to report that it exceeded my expectations. In a world of so many remakes and reboots of classic properties, this house delivered a fantastic experiential interpretation of the original monsters that started it all! You get The Hunchback, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein’s Monster, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Wolfman. Every aspect of this house was planned and executed with detailed precision. We didn’t get some reimagination of these characters in such a way that the house sought to “improve” upon the source material, it was a beautiful display of Universal’s legacy of horror.

My pick for best original concept house is Graveyard Games! This house transports you to a beautiful gothic haunted cemetery that delivers the scares for which you’re searching at HHN. The level of detail in this house is truly outstanding. And it’s not just the undead that are hunting you down. It would have been all too easy to just have another cemetery filled with zombies or other minions of the undead, but here you find any and everything that goes bump in the night and more. This is a house that I could do over and over again, and never get tired of it. I love how much like a real gothic cemetery it feels and that the scares are some of the best at the event this year.

Nightingales Blood Pit is the sequel to Nightingales from several seasons ago. Here you will find yourself in the trenches and catacombs of ancient Rome where sinister, blood thirsty  birdlike creatures have taken over the city. Not even Rome’s famous gladiators are a match for these horrifying abominations. If there was an award given out for best facade, then this house would win! I absolutely love the production design on the outside of the house that (1) you can take pictures of and (2) it instantly begins to immerse you into the nightmarish world into which you are about to descend. All that was missing is the aroma from the scene where “the great library of Alexandria was burned” on Spaceship Earth at Epcot.

House of a Thousand Corpses (HOATC) is an outstanding translation from screen to attraction! This is another house with a great facade, and the best one I’ve seen on this building in years. HOATC delivers precisely what you desire to see in this house! Not only does it have some great hillbilly horror scares, but the casting is fantastic, especially the actors playing Captain Spaulding. The moment I walked into the lobby of the store and saw Captain Spaulding standing behind the desk, you could have told me that it was Sig Haig and I would have believed you. You get it all, blood, guts, the music of Rob Zombie and more.

Depths of Fear is likely the weakest house out of the lineup this year. And it’s not because the concept is weak as much as it is the execution. I get it. It was going for Aliens set underwater. But for most of the house, I wouldn’t tell if I was in outer space or in the depths of the ocean. If this was supposed to be a horror comedy house, then I think I would have liked it more, but I don’t think the comedy was intentional. Although the costuming, puppet design, and other effects were creative, they lacked anything truly scary. Maybe this was another house, much like Stranger Things, that was supposed to appeal to a younger audience.

You may find yourself in the US house at HHN29. Based on the popular Jordan Peele movie released earlier this year US takes a stab at adapting Peele’s movie into an attraction. And if you’re a fan of the movie, then you will most likely enjoy this house because it is virtually every major plot point from the movie. The design and attention to detail is right out of the movie. As I found the movie to be just okay, I also find this house to be just okay. I can certainly understand why it was chosen over Toothfairy (which was actually a better and scarier house concept, btw) because of the box office success.

Bring your parka if you want to survive the night in Yeti Terror of the Yukon. Universal Creative delivers another excellent original concept house, loosely inspired by last year’s Revenge of the Swamp Yeti in Slaughter Sinema. So much fun! Not only is this house full of traditional scares, but it is incredibly fun. Completely re-doable. Although you are inside a sound stage, you will feel as though you are braving the icy temperatures of the Yukon. One of my favorite scares is when a giant Yeti arm attempts to grab you from above. Completely unexpected! And the costuming is fantastic too.

Who’re you gonna call? GhostbustersFollowing Universal Monsters, this was the next house I was looking forward to most. And although I was pretty much able to predict what I was going to see in the house, it doesn’t take away from how much fun it was! Many people that are now fans of or regulars at Universal Orlando are unfamiliar with the former Ghostbusters special effects and stunt show that was located where Jimmy Fallon is now. After the house was announced, I was hoping that I would see the same optical effects that the movie and live show used to bring the world of Ghostbusters to a haunted house attraction. And you know what? Universal did just that! From the use of projections and mirrors to a giant StayPuff Marshmallow Man head that smelled of toasted marshmallows, the commitment to staying true to the movie (and even the previous live show) was outstanding.

Returning for a second year in a row is Stranger Things. This time, immerse yourselves in “a solute to all [seasons] but mostly [season two].” My followers who, are friends of Muppet Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios will appreciate that reference. By all measurable accounts, season three of the hit Netflix series is the stronger one between 2 and 3; however, this house is three-quarters season two. In fact, Star Court Mall, for all intents and purposes,  comprises one room–disappointing. I’d say that’s the word that sums up my experience of the Stranger Things house this year. It’s unfortunate that it was disappointing to me because Season Three lended itself to horror so much that I thought for sure it would have been a more significant part of the house.

Continuing the pattern of a scare zone turned house, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (KKFOS) has lots of cotton candy and popcorn for you! As a scare zone this IP worked so incredibly well that I was cautiously optimistic for the house translation. The caution was because I felt that HHN28‘s Trick ‘r Treat worked better as a scare zone (HHN27) than house. I am pleased to report that as successful the scare zone for KKFOS was, it worked equally well if not even BETTER as a house! Everything about this house works incredibly well. From the campy costumes to most memorable moments from the movie, and even the sounds of popcorn and and aroma of cotton candy permeating every nook and cranny. If you suffer from a fear of clowns, then this is definitely a house where you can face your fears!

If there is an overall weak area of HHN28, it is the scare zones. Compared to year’s past, the scare zones seemed to not be as immersive as they usually are. I was told my a team member that some of the house facades and scare zone elements were removed when it was predicted that Hurricane Dorian was going to significantly impact Orlando. As I have only been to HHN opening weekend (Fri, Sat, and Sun), I have not been back to compare what is now there compared to opening weekend. Of all the scare zones, Rob Zombie’s Hellbilly Deluxe is the zone that offers guests the best experience. However, I would be remiss not to mention the brilliant laser and neon lights of Anarch-Cade! I loved the cabinet video games and all the lights that reminded me of an old-school arcade in a mall. The other zones are okay, so definitely don’t miss them. But the zones are the weakest part of the event this season. If for no other reason, they are lacking in scares.

Do not leave HHN29 without watching the Halloween Marathon of Mayhem nighttime spectacular on the lagoon. The nights I was there, it ran at 10, 11, and 12M. Although only about 10mins, it is a great way to pay tribute to Universal’s legacy of horror and each house that makes up HHN29. The music and lights are a direct extension of all the houses, full of 80s nostalgia and neon! If there is an area of improvement for the show, it would be to include some pyrotechnics. The water screens, fountains, and projections are great, but I would have liked to have seen some fireworks as well. Now I know that would be difficult with the show running multiple times, but I imagine that Universal Creative is innovative enough to develop a safe method for setting up the show to have pyro in each showing.

There you have it, folks! A complete review of Halloween Horror Nights XXIX!. As fantastic as this year is, I cannot wait to see what Universal has in store for HHN 30! Maybe we will see the return of past icons or even reimaginations of past houses. Horror Nights is running on select nights now through November 2nd. If you can afford to buy one of the frequent fear passes with express or just one night of express, then you will definitely increase your enjoyment level and minimize the negative stressors that come along with this annual event.

For my friend Dani’s review of HHN XXIX, please visit her blog too!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure Review

I finally had the opportunity to experience #HagRide at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. After two previous attempts to ride the mindblowing attraction, I was able to mount my motorbike and be hurled into a world of adventure. My experience was enhanced because my sister and brother-in-law were visiting, and we got to ride it together for the very first time! Additionally, I was able to share the experience with my friend Dani (her review here) because she was just 30mins ahead of us in queue–we found out each other was at the park in queue for HagRide on Twitter–small world! If you’ve heard it characterized as a storycoaster, you’ve heard correctly. HagRide represents the best of coaster and dark ride technologies all rolled up into one innovative attraction that is unparalleled by any other I have experienced. And if you’re like me–averse to the proliferation of screen-based attractions–then you’ll be immensely delighted that this storycoaster is full of practical effects, sets, props, and groundbreaking animatronics. And to answer the question that is likely on your mind, I only waited for 1.75hrs. Would’ve been 1.5hrs but it was momentarily delayed–no surprise there. Is it worth the 3+ hour wait that many are still reporting? For that, I will not provide commentary; however, my brother-in-law who isn’t a big theme park fan because of the wait times said, and I quote, “that was worth the wait.” Thankfully we had unlimited Express Passes because we were staying at the Royal Pacific Resort, but HagRide does not offer an Express Pass queue nor does it open during the hour-early resort guest hours. Bottom line, this coaster is one that you do not want to miss during your visit to Wizarding World Orlando!

I feel that I have been in the Forbidden Forest ever since I began receiving the Press Releases containing artwork, progress photos, and descriptions of the highly anticipated addition to Hogsmeade at Universal Orlando. Every time I read about a new magical creature or the animatronics, I grew increasingly excited. Unfortunately yours truly still isn’t important enough to Universal to be invited to the media events, but I am glad that I at least get the media emails from the resort to keep up with the goings-on at the park. Thankfully, I can now provide you with the review of my first time on the motorbike (I rode the motorbike, my sister and brother-in-law were directly behind me in the motorbike/sidecar respectively). Although it is not fair to compare it to any existing theme park attraction because of its uniqueness, if you compare it to the two existing Harry Potter attractions, then it has the ride vehicle innovation of Forbidden Journey and the storytelling of Escape from Gringotts. The queue and attraction include more than 1200 live trees to truly immerse you in the forbidden forest. Longtime visitors to Islands of Adventure will recognize parts of the queue as belonging to the former Dueling Dragons turned Dragon Challenge coaster. I love looking for the remnants of the past as incorporated into new attractions.

The story begins in the queue–specifically–the preshow (from which, you are looking at 45mins to 1hr wait). Just as Dumbledore opened Hogwarts to muggles, the premise for the story found in Forbidden Journey, Hagrid opens his Magical Creatures class to muggles! Love the parallel there. During your tour, you will encounter magical creatures with which you are familiar and a brand new hybridization created by Hagrid known as Blast-Ended Skrewt. During the preshow, you also get a first-look at your ride vehicle, Sirius Black’s flying motorbike (that you can also see in the video on the Hogwarts Express as you travel from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade). After the preshow and prior to mounting your bike, you continue to meander the labyrinth of hallways filled with dragon and other creature eggs, graffiti from Hogwarts Students dec the walls, yes even venders selling food and drink in queue because of the long wait time. Because Hagrid loves the students, their sneaking around and all, he is wokring with Arthur Weasley to finish the train of motorbikes that will take students and you out into the Forbidden Forest in large groups to see the Blast-Ended Skrewt. Of course, something goes terribly wrong and hijinks ensue! Prepare for the ride of your life as there are launches, twists, turns, and even some pitfalls along the way.

HagRide excels in both its delivery of the narrative and spectacle. It is both impressive from a technical marvel perspective and experiential one. The long and short of it is that HagRide is FUN! You will want to ride it again and again. Although you will probably not want to wait 3+ hours, time and time again. Whereas I do not typically scream on or truly get lost in an attraction, this one successfully transported me to the Forbidden Forest in both mind and body. I screamed and whoah’d multiples times! Not knowing what lies ahead held me in suspense, and delivered in spades, after every windup. I was holding onto the handlebars of the motorbike as if I was actually on one. If I closed by eyes, I’m confident that I would truly feel that I was on a motorbike zooming through a forest. Every moment, every prop, set piece, and turn earns your screams and laughter! You’ll be captivated by the production design and incredible animatronics the entire time and even after you exit the attraction!

Impressive. That is the one word, aside from fun, that truly captures what it is like to experience HagRide. The combination of technologies integrated into the design of the attraction has never been seen before. No flight simulator can replicate what Universal Orlando Resort was able to deliver in this attraction. There is even a moment that you shot up a nearly vertical ~70ft track section, just to pause for a few seconds then shot backwards through the dark–think Expedition Everest, but BETTER and more intense. That’s not the surprise that awaits you on HagRide, there are seven launches and a 15ft drop (won’t tell you were it is). There was such a huge possibility that the focus could have so easily been on the technology–see what we can do now–but I am pleased to report that the technical advancements never take away from the narrative. There is a perfect balance of spectacle vs narrative; the show and ride technology serve the park guest by enhancing the experience. HagRide effortlessly weaves the story into the mechanics of the attraction in such a manner that you will truly want to experience it again and again to witness what you may have missed on the first time around. I certainly need to return for more re-rides to continually take everything in.

With so much to see on HagRide, you will likely notice some detail in the queue or on the ride that you may have missed before. Definitely make the time to experience Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure!

You can catch Ryan most weekends at Busch Gardens Tampa, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort, or Walt Disney World. So if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him in the parks.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and has been writing on theme parks for more than five years. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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“Ringling Bros. Circus: the Final Farewell” Documentary Review

“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Feld Entertainment proudly presents Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey! Welcome to the greatest show on earth!” For nearly a century and a half (146yrs), THE circus was an American institution that began with storied entertainer P.T. Barnum and later bought by John Ringling followed by the Feld family, whom would produce the circus for its last 50yrs. Prior to (what would eventually become known as) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (from hereon out referred to as RBBBC), America did not have a concept of what a traveling live entertainment show was. There was certainly live entertainment prior to RBBBC, but you had to be fortunate enough to live or visit the cities where the shows were. What made the RBBBC unique was the fact it traveled by train to cities nationwide delivering the greatest show on earth to ladies, gentleman, and children of all ages. Much like the US space program indirectly impacted our lives at home, the office, and in the car through the prolific space spinoff technologies, RBBBC’s influences on live and themed entertainment are far reaching. From technical theatre technology to advertising to stunts and beyond. Nearly every live entertainment show can trace elements of its roots back to the circus. Once packing out tents turned arenas, in the last few years of the circus, the numbers began to shrink. And eventually it was decided to make the hard decision to close the circus after its final performance in May 2017. The documentary The Final Farewell chronicles the final performance of the American institution as it invites you to be in awe and wonder of the talent and technology on display that inspired imaginations for nearly 150 years. It airs on AXS-TV on Memorial Day at 8pm EDT. Learn just why this truly was the greatest show on earth, and why the performers and technicians truly felt that it was a community, a town without a zip code that will forever be missed.

Two years ago, RBBBC saw its final performance in Uniondale, NY (NYC area). This was the last time long-standing ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson would say goodbye to the audiences that clapped, cheered, and applauded the experience of being mesmerized by the spectacle of the circus. After nearly 150 years, it was difficult for the cast, crew, and American people to fully comprehend that this was the last time RBBBC’s iconic train would pull into the station to bring the circus to the eager audience. After pioneering the very concept of touring live entertainment, the circus finally came to a close, and with it, the end of an American icon. This documentary, that has been more than two years in the making, provides audiences with an up close and personal look at the timeless magic of the circus through intimate interviews with cast and crew, footage of the final performance, and archival photographs and video.

Documentaries are challenged to make a strong emotional connection with the audience; otherwise, they may fall into talking head or Wikipedia territory. This emotional connection is often accomplished through the use of subtext, a compelling score, artfully crafted images, and a script. A script? Precisely. Perhaps you are under the impression that a documentary is written in post-production, but that is not entirely true. A significant amount of work goes into producing a documentary that will evoke emotion and empathy at will, months or years before the camera shoots the first footage. Much of this work is accomplished through the effective use of a script (or strong outline). The script serves as the map between the idea or origin of the documentary and the destination. I say map because just like a roadmap (even GPS ones), there are opportunities to take an unexpected exit or explore a tourist stop that was not foreseen when the route was first plotted. Unlike the track on the Tomorrowland Speedway, you can veer off course in the event that something catches your eye. Spending a substantive amount of time in the pre-production stage of a doc also allows the director (or producer) to decide what kind of documentary the story should be. There are six types of documentaries: poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, and performative.

  • Poetic: Focus on experiences, images, and showing the audience the world through a different set of eyes. The ultimate goal is to create a feeling rather than truth.
  • Expository: Closest to what most people consider “documentaries.” These aim to inform and/or persuade — often through omnipresent “Voice of God” narration over footage.
  • Observational: Also known as cinema verite (veritas, Greek for truth), these aim to simply observe the world around them. The style attempts to give voice to all sides of an issue by giving audiences first hand access to some of the subject’s most important (and often private) moments.
  • Participatory: While having elements of Observational and Expository, include the filmmaker within the narrative. The filmmaker directly influences the major actions of the narrative.
  • Reflexive: Often include the filmmaker within the film; however, unlike Participatory, they make no attempts to explore an outside subject.
  • Performative: An experimental combination of styles used to stress subject experience and share an emotional response to the world. Often called the “Michael Moore” style of doc.

Before you begin to think that this article is all about how to make a documentary–don’t worry–but being familiar with the different style of docs will help to understand my critique of The Final Farewell. At the end of the day, this documentary is highly informative, containing some fantastic footage and interviews. Unfortunately, it lacks direction. The doc framing devices oscillate between a focus on the final show and the rich history of the RBBBC. Individually, both of these approaches to the doc work well; but switching between the two, takes away from the full emotional potential. There are times that it is highly expository but then it switches mid-act to observational and even becomes performative at times. It’s important for a documentary to select one type of doc style, and stick to it, otherwise the audience may lose focus and thus mitigates the desired emotional response from the audience. For those whom worked on or with the circus, there is certainly a nostalgic magic at play in this doc, but I think that some of the magic is lost on those whom did not have a personal connection to the greatest show. Had the documentary chosen to focus on the final show and the issues that led to the hard decision to close the circus after 146 years or chosen to focus on the history and evolution of the circus from its earliest days with P.T. Barnum to the Feld Family, by taking the audience on a journey that ended with the final performance, then I feel that there would have been a stronger emotional connection between the doc and the general audience. Whereas most of the interviews are framed in a traditional manner, there are a handful of recurring interviews wherein the interviewee looks directly at the camera. Any first year film student will tell you that this is never how a documentary interview should be shot unless chosen for artistic reasons that advance the plot. All that said, there are quite a few elements that work very well. There is a powerful documentary in there somewhere, but the lack of direction keeps it from reaching its full potential.

If there is one message that The Final Farewell drives home–and effectively so–is the very real community that existed between the cast (both people and animals) and crew while on and off the tracks. As familiar with the circus as I am, I had no idea that entire families traveled together, that there were schools and even a daycare on board the train. Furthermore, there was a commissary, barber/salon, restaurant and more. All that was missing was a post office. Unlike other traveling shows, including Feld Entertainment’s Disney on Ice, Sesame Street Live, and upcoming Jurassic World Live Tour, these performers went home every night as opposed to staying in hotel after hotel. Crazy, right?!? I found it utterly fascinating. Never thought of the RBBBC families literally having the train be their home for most of the year. For kids who grew up in the circus, this is the only home they ever knew. So, having your only home taken away from you, must have been devastating if not traumatizing. THAT is a story that I would have loved to have heard. It’s this very sense of community that the general audience can empathize with because none of us want to think of our livelihoods, let alone, homes being taken away from us. RBBBC was truly a world in and of itself. Not only was it the greatest show on earth, it was also the greatest home and career that these performers ever knew or perhaps will ever know. According to the many interviews, the feeling of community was strong. To be in Ringling Bros. was considered to be the apex of a career in the performing circus arts. And it is clear that everyone associated with this American institution will miss it.

Although there are dozens of acts in the circus, The Final Farewell focusses on Ringmaster Iverson, big cat trainers, dog trainers, motorbike acrobats, trapeze artists, Paolo, and the iconic clowns. The active embrace of diversity was a constant theme through the interviews. From Iverson winning the role of Ringmaster to became the first African-American to hold the coveted spot in 1998 to the attachment of acts from around the globe to highlight different talents, cultures, and people in ways that were positive, uplifting, and impactful, diversity ran strong. Not mentioned in this doc, RBBBC also broke the glass ceiling when the first female Ringmaster was cast for Circus Extreme (co-running at the same time as Out of this World). So many wonderful opportunities were created for a wide range of talented performers and technicians. Lots of firsts associated with the circus. It is clear from the interviews that everyone absolutely loved working for the circus. And that enthusiasm can be felt at times through the doc. In addition to the interviews, there are dozens of minutes of footage of the spectacular performances, dazzling costumes, and the smiling faces of the audience at the arena. But the footage and interviews are not contained to the show itself, there are many moments that take you to Feld Entertainment Studios to meet the costume and set designers that craft the show experience that the performers bring to life.

One of the items of interest conspicuously missing from the documentary, is any time spent exploring why RBBBC closed. The only reference to one of the reasons for the closure is a comment from Iverson asking the audience if the circus is antiquated. And of course, there is a resounding NO from the audience. A well-written documentary should address any elephants in the room. It’s no secret that RBBBC came under increasing scrutiny from PETA and other animal rights groups in recent years, and that the constant propaganda and petitions had an affect on the audience numbers. In terms of the animal treatment, whereas the earliest versions of the circus in the days of P.T. Barnum did not place extreme pride in animal care, RBBBC took great care in providing a rich and full life for the animal performers. Each and every animal was treated like royalty by their trainers, handlers, and owners. But I feel it was a missed opportunity for this documentary to address the issue of the animals (most prominently the elephants) and how outside forces did have an impact on the audience numbers. It would have been a great opportunity to tell this side of the story that the headlines so often neglected.

Prepare yourself for a documentary that is larger than life as you peek inside the final performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey! If you have been a fan of the circus from the time you were a kit to an adult, then you will find so much to like in this doc-film. I don’t foresee any Emmys for this doc next award season, but it’s still a fascinating exploration of the town without a zip code, the greatest show on earth.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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Busch60! Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Celebrates 60 Years

March 2019 marks Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s 60th anniversary! Opening on March 31, 1959 as a free-admission destination with a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, tropical gardens, and a bird show, this one-time tourist stop offering free beer has become a world-class theme park known for its figure skating and animal shows, train safari, but mostly its exhilarating roller coasters, some of which are regularly ranked amongst the best in the world. Predating the opening of nearby Walt Disney World by more than a decade, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has undergone name, identity, and leadership changes over the decades to become the theme park that it is today. Surprisingly, there are remnants of the original Tampa Anheuser-Busch park in plain sight. But what is the Busch Gardens story? And just how did it go from a free-admission brewery offering free beer to the word-class destination that it is today? Time for a history lesson. Let’s grab a beer and hop in our time machine to explore the history of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

In 1959, roller coasters were not thought of, but there was certainly a foreshadowing of what was to come. With the opening of the brewery, the Anheuser-Busch property featured a facility tour, free beer, exotic garden, and aviary. In addition to the aforementioned, there was also a “kind of a ride,” As Jurassic Parks‘s John Hammond would put it. This then-attraction was known as the Stairway to the Stars. At 80ft long, it was the longest single escalator in the world at the time. Not seen as a ride per se at the time, looking back, it is clear that Busch Gardens was always concerned about the guest experience and providing more than just the beer it produced. You can liken what Anheuser-Busch was doing with the Tampa brewery to the Coors Brewery tour in Golden, CO (near Denver). Instead of mountains for the guests, the Busch Brewery provided a tropical environment in order to immerse the guests into the world of the Tampa brewery. Although the brewery is no longer in existence, the Hospitality House, where guests exited the tour, is still there! You know it as The Garden Gate Cafe where Guests 21+ can enjoy complementary beer. This hospitality business model would continue until a pivotal change in 1965.

What was to open in 1965 would completely alter the hospitality facility, and set it on the course to become the Busch Gardens we see today–and can still experience. What I am speaking of is the world-famous Serengeti Plain! But before the African animal habitat opened, the 1960s also brought about other changes that paved the way for the still-popular attraction. Now named the Serengeti Overlook Restaurant, the Old Swiss House opened in 1964. In the same vein as today, this restaurant offered a cafe on the main level and a full-service upscale dining restaurant on the upper floor. In fact, it was recognized as one of the finest dining experiences in Tampa. To this day, you can enjoy a quick service restaurant in the pub and an upscale buffet on the top floor.

Years 1965-66 delivered guests attractions that began the transformation from a brewery to a theme park. In 1965 the Serengeti Plain, the first habitat of its kind, opened! Never before had an expansive animal habitat opened providing guests with the opportunity to observe exotic animals in their quasi natural environment. There was no Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Zoo Tampa was still evolving from a municipal animal park to a formal zoo. This unique offering began the transformation from elaborate brewery tour to zoological attraction! To provide guests with an up close and personal view of the African animals, it opened a monorail! That’s right, before Walt Disney World’s famous monorail opened in 1971, the Busch Gardens monorail was transporting guests through its highway in the sky five years prior. The monorail was not included in the brewery tour, but was a nominal $1.50 for adults and $0.75 for children. Think of Busch Gardens at this time as a state park that has a cheap admission with a la carte attraction offerings. The motto for the monorail tour and Serengeti Plain was “where people are caged and animals roam free.” During the 1960s, Busch Gardens was the No.1 tourist attraction in Florida!

The 1970s would introduce major competition just east of the park. What could have possibly opened in the 1970s that would drive up the competition exponentially? You guessed it, the opening of Walt Disney World on October 1, 1971. The 1970s and into the 80s saw massive expansions to keep the guests coming to the park with Disney World being just an hour away. In addition to the monorail experience, Busch Gardens added the Trans-Veldt railway (now the Serengeti Express, and during Christmas Town the Sing-a-long Express) to transport guests around the perimeter of the Serengeti Plain. In addition to the iconic train, Busch Gardens added the Moroccan Village, featuring performers, vendors, and artisans, which now functions as the entryway into the park. Stanleyville was opened to provide a space for additional animal encounters, shows, and gardens. Still, Busch Gardens had no rollercoasters. It had the Stairway to the Stars, monorail, and train, but no thrill rides. That would change in 1976 with the introduction of Python! Python would be the first rollercoaster at Busch Gardens, and it included two inversions (corkscrews). Elsewhere in the park, Skyride, Stanley Falls log flume, and the African Queen boat ride (similar to Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise) were opened.

With all the African-centric animals, attractions, etc being added to the park, Busch Gardens began using the name Dark Continent, later changed to Busch Gardens Africa. During the 1970s, Busch Gardens Dark Continent changed from a free general admission plus a la carte pricing for all the attractions to a similar setup at Magic Kingdom in its early days. The general admission would be nominal and some offerings were included, but there were upgrades for many of the more elaborate attractions. What could have been a decade of setbacks, with the opening of WDW, was actually the most expansive in Busch Garden’s history! In order to support the growth of the theme park, Anheuser-Busch incorporated Busch Entertainment Corporation in 1979. Later that year, Busch Gardens Williamsburg opened, and the one-time brewer was now a theme park conglomerate.

 

The 1980s saw more expansions and attractions. Most notable is the addition of Timbuktu (now Pantopia), the largest (in land area) expansion at Busch Gardens to date. Attractions in Timbuktu included the kiddie coaster Scorpion and the Phoenix. Not far from Timbuktu,  the Congo area was added with the main attraction Congo River Rapids. Over in Stanleyville, Busch Gardens opened the Stanleyville Theatre, which offered a variety show. Between Stanleyville and the Bird Garden, the Dwarf Village, designed for children, opened. Many expansions during this time! And both kids and older guests where thought of in order to give everyone a quality experience.

Located where Sesame Street is now, the Dwarf Village featured a rustic, wood-shingled tree house, equipped with a tube slide, webbed rope for climbing, a miniature car ride, a canoe ride, a “cloud bounce” air mattress made for jumping, a ball crawl, and a tunnel maze, among other attractions. It also contained statues of dwarfs, mushroom houses, and Leprechaun Lane where the little people are busy all day long. Bringing Broadway to a theme park, the Moroccan Palace Theatre opened with the show Kaleidoscope. This show was regarded as the most lavish Broadway style attraction in any theme park in the world, at the time. During this time, the old monorail cars were replaced with newer versions that resemble the monorail at Disney World. The last part of the decade saw the African Queen boat ride close–well, get a refurbishment. It became the former Tidal Wave attraction, which has sense been replaced by the Tigris coaster opening this spring. Closing out the decade, Busch Entertainment acquired the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Park Group that included neighboring SeaWorld and Cypress Gardens (which would eventually become LEGOland Florida). At this time, the Busch Gardens park in Florida was seen as the flagship park.

One of the biggest changes in the 1990s was the remodeling of the Moroccan Palace Theatre. The stage was converted to an ice stage, and Around the World on Ice debuted! To this day, there is a daily figure skating show at this unique venue. Busch Gardens would see–yet–another name change. This time changing to the name it has today Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Coaster fever hit the Busch parks. In 1993, Kumba came roaring in, welcoming thrill seeking guests. Fortunately, this is a coaster that can still be experienced today. And I’m pleased to write that after some refurbishments, Kumba is much smoother than it used to be.

Across the park in Timbuktu, the Dolphin Theatre was added; this was a daily dolphin show similar to the one at SeaWorld. The Moroccan Palace Theatre also saw changes; the Around the World on Ice changed to Hollywood On Ice, a show featuring music and moments from classic Hollywood! The 90s was also a time of closures. The Stanleyville variety show, monorail, and Stairway to the Stars, the park’s very first “ride” closed. Due to leadership changes at Anheuser-Busch after the acquisition by InBev, it was decided to close the Tampa brewery. The last handful of workers punched out for the last time in December 1995. With the closure of the brewery, it seemed the heart of the park stopped beating. Although there was no more brewery to tour, the free beer would continue and guests could still visit the stables where the famous Clydesdales resided. Other closures included The Dwarf Village, which was replaced with The Land of Dragons.

The mid to latter 90s would also see another land expansion. This time, the park was turning to the pharaohs. Opening with the new land of Egypt is a coaster that is still ranked as one of the best in the world–Montu! As Busch Gardens has always had a commitment to education, a replica of King Tuts Tomb opened in the Egypt area. The ice show at the palace would change from Hollywood on Ice to World Rhythms on Ice in 1998. The ride simulator Questor was changed to Akbar’s Adventure Tours starring Martin Short. This attraction took park guests on a wacky tour of Egypt. In the center of the park, Busch Gardens erected a dueling wooden rollercoaster in 1999 that has since closed, but will be reimagined as a new hybrid coaster in 2020. You guessed it, this wooden coater is Gwazi. It was built on the former site of the brewery.

Probably the biggest addition to the park in the early 2000s came in 2000 with the inaugural year of Howl-O-Scream! Busch Gardens’ premiere Halloween seasonal event is still the biggest seasonal offering to date, drawing guests from all across the region and other parts of the country. Other additions in the early 2000s included the comedy safari themed Rhino Rally (an attraction that I sorely miss). If you were to take the Jungle Cruise and Kilimanjaro Safari from WDW, and combine them, this is the attraction that you would get! After a few years run, the Dolphin Theatre was closed and remodeled to be the Timbuktu Theatre.

The first attraction to call the Timbuku Theatre home was the former R.L. Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse 4D, but it was replaced with Pirates 4D early on. Rhythms on Ice closed to make way for Katonga. Coaster fever hit the park again, and the drop coaster Sheikra was opened! Not only was it the tallest coaster in Florida at the time, it was also the first dive coaster to include an inversion. More sad closures hit the park, the park’s very first coaster Python was closed after 30yrs of operation to the day (plus one). Midway through the 2000s decade, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay changes its name to Busch Gardens Africa. In place of the Python coaster, Busch Gardens created the Jungala area, which is home to the tigers and Congo River Rapids, along with smaller attractions for the younger guests at the park. In addition to the rides, Busch Gardens also added a streetmosphere show with characters on stilts in elaborate costumes. Towards the end of the 2000s, Busch Gardens Africa was renamed Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the name it still holds today. In 2007, Anheuser-Busch (parent company to Busch Entertainment) conducted leadership changes and promotions. As a result, most of the executives were in Orlando as SeaWorld Orlando was now seen as the company’s flagship park, so the company headquarters was relocated to Orlando.

In 2009, InBev (owner of Anheuser-Busch) decided to divest itself of all the Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks. It sold them off to the Blackstone Group. Over the next several months, the park removed the Anheuser-Busch branding, famous clydesdales, and the free beer. The company name changed from Busch Entertainment to SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. As part of the acquisition, Anheuser-Busch licensed the name Busch Gardens to Blackstone in perpetuity. Other than the Garden Gate Cafe, Crown Colony House, and Skyride, very little of the early park was left. Land of Dragons, which was the Dwarf Village, was once again rethemed. This time, to Sesame Street. Across the park near the Garden Gate Cafe was a new area with Australia theming and animals! Walkabout Way, an area where you can get up close with kangaroos, wallabies, emus and more! Fans of Rhino Rally are going to remember this date development. In order to plan for the next big coaster, part of the former Rhino Rally had to be closed. The area closed was the water features. Using the old monorail building as the guest load and unload area, the launch coaster Cheetah Hunt was opened.

In the Moroccan Village theatre, Busch Gardens created the Motor City Groove show that entertained guests with a’cappella covers of some of the best music out of Detroit. Replacing Katonga at the Moroccan Palace Theatre was IcePloration! A spectacular combination of acrobatics, aerial acts, and of course figure skating that explored different parts of the world! 2012 was the inaugural year for Christmas Town, a hard-ticketed event that celebrated the season with a fabulous mixture of the traditional and contemporary Christmas music, decorations, light, shows and more! Since 2015, Christmas Town has been included in day admission.

From Timbuktu to Egypt, 2013 brought about more closures including the Pirates 4D show and King Tut’s Tomb. Timbuktu would see an identity change as well with the opening of the drop tower attraction Falcon’s Fury. When Falcon’s Fury opened, the land of Timbuktu became Pantopia. With the name change, the Timbuktu Theatre became the Pantopia Theatre. And this theatre would welcome a new show called Opening Night Critters. This show was quite similar to the Critter Castaways show that was in the old Bird Gardens theatre, but a few changes were made in order to freshen the show. After the opening of Pantopia, Rhino Rally closed permanently. The ride that replaced the iconic brewery, would see its own closure in 2015. And remains closed to this day until the newly reimagined Gwazi opens in 2020. The brewery tour lasted 36yrs; Gwazi was around for 10yrs. Just sayin. With the popularity of food and wine festivals increasing exponentially, Busch Gardens started its own festival in the spring of 2015. Back over in Egypt, a new family spinning-style coaster opened–Cobra’s Curse. The queue for the attraction was the park’s first indoor queue and used the old King Tut’s tomb. In fact, the main chamber of the queue is the former burial chamber of King Tut. To make preparations for the park’s next coaster, the Tidal Wave attraction, which was once home of the African Queen boat ride closed permanently.

The Moroccan Palace would once again see the ice show change, this time to a post-modern extravaganza of popular music and award-winning stunts. In May of 2017, the stage was completely renovated to make way for Turn It Up: the Hottest Show on Ice! The beauty of this show is that the music and choreography can be updated every few years without having to completely redo the show. Last year (2018), Busch Gardens brought back the complementary beer and an entire Bier Fest in the late summer to bridge the gap between Summer Nights and Howl-O-Scream. The biggest news lately is the upcoming opening of Tigris, which is being built on the location of the old African Queen boat ride turned Tidal Wave, turned queue for HOS house, now coaster. That land has certainly seen a variety of uses. Fortunately Tigris looks to be one of the most thrilling coasters anywhere around! It’s fast, has launches, drops, and more. Looking forward to experiencing the newest addition to the park this spring.

There you have it, folks! A history of Busch Gardens from 1959 to 2019. Although the park has undergone many changes over the decades, you can still visit places like the Garden Gate Cafe and Serengeti Overlook to walk where the park’s first guests experienced this outstanding park. With so many events going on at Busch Gardens for #Busch60, the 60th Anniversary of the park, you will want to upgrade your day ticket to an annual pass! Every month, there is something new to experience as Busch wants you to help celebrate in the festivities!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and works in live themed entertainment. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Sky’s the Limit at Cirque Vertigo at Busch Gardens

If you missed Cirque Vertigo last week at Busch Gardens’ Real Music Series during the park’s 60th Anniversary, don’t panic! It is coming back at the end of the Real Music series. This highly popular limited engagement was a packed house at each show. For those who miss the touring Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for all its death-defying acrobatics, then you are in for a treat! Returning for the final week of Real Music Real Masters series, Cirque Vertigo featuring the famous Wallenda Duo March 11-16. As none of the Real Music Real Masters shows run on Sunday, for those of us whom work Monday-Friday, make sure you catch the show on Saturday at either 11:30 or 1:30. Seriously, this show fills up faster than Fantasmic at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. And with good reason. It’s a limited run and is an absolutely spectacular extravaganza.

I cannot mention enough the importance of picking up a FREE show ticket (that essentially means you have A seat) before the show. The show WILL FILL UP. I imagine that the second run of the show will be even more popular because of all the Twitter and Instagram activity during the first run. So, you have a few weeks to plan your next visit.

At approximately 45-minutes, this is a long theme park show, but it is high impact the whole time. Cirque Vertigo has it all–comedy, acrobatics, audience interaction, and adrenaline pumping music! The show opens with a hilarious monologue and giant ball-spinning act by the emcee. This is a great transition from arriving at the theatre to the show because some tensions were high with the chaotic loading of the theatre. Comedy is a great way to calm down those who may be frustrated that they didn’t get the seat they hoped they would get. Throughout the show, the emcee proves audiences with some laughs between the balancing and acrobatic acts. Although much of his humor is self-deprecating, there is no question that he has some great talent for balancing large objects, Chinese yoyo tricks, and more.

The first act involves spinning lights lots of mindblowing balancing acts. All are fascinating to watch! As the lights fly by, the trail left behind the lights displays the Real Music series logo. This act is a combination of light spinning and gymnastics. Following the light spinning, another acrobat brings out a huge wire frame cube and spins and balances it. Pretty sure that cube was taller than the performer. By far the most impressive routine in the opening was the balancing act on the silver cylindrical shapes. As I am not a circus performer, I am not certain of the proper name for those elements of the act.

The second act takes extreme hula hooping to the next level! I have difficulty just hula-ing with one hoop let alone dozens! The first part of the routine involves juggling hula hoops in a fantastically choreographed routine followed by hula-ing dozens and dozens of hula-hoops.

The third act takes you to the sky as the silks falls from the ceiling and the acrobat ascends! Silk routines are among my favorite at Cirque or Circus shows. There is an incredible beauty to how the acrobat moves up and down the silks. It is clear where the show got its name because of all the vertically aligned acts that reach for the sky. More so than the other acts, this one stands out as aerial interpretive dancing–an experimental ballet suspended above the stage.

Act four starts on the ground, then towers to the rafters. The same acrobat that balanced the giant cube before is back with a different geometric shape. This time, he impresses the audience with incredible feats of balance and movement with the ring. There is literally nothing that this guy can do with the ring. Personally, my favorite routine was spinning on the round and rolling around the stage in it. Following the ring routine, the next acrobat stacks chairs more than 30ft in the air (maybe even higher) and does a handstand! Phenomenal! Such a magnificent display of acrobatic prowess.

The fifth and final act before the finale features the Wallenda Duo! I’ve seen trapeze routines, high-wire acts, and other circus staples, but I’ve never seen a circus act like this one before. With a vertically aligned bar suspended from the trusses, the Wallenda Duo mesmerizes the audience with a gravity-defying routine act that will hold you in suspense as death-defying acts are on display before your very eyes. No CGI, no fly system, no safety net–just world-class acrobats that are (if I remember correctly) fourth generation circus performers.

You do not want to miss a single epic moment of Cirque Vertigo!

Visit the Busch Gardens website for more information on this and the other exciting acts coming to the Real Music Real Masters series!